I am currently in Almaty, staying at the usual place- amigo hostel- and am in an extraordinarily good mood since calling customs this morning, to discover that the engine parts are ready to collect!!!
Egor has gone to pick them up and hopes to have Grettle ready to roll tomorrow morning!
I’m having a lovely time in Almaty- there are heaps of friends here from Bishkek which is great, and I am spending most of my time with two very irresponsible Slovaks – Roman and Millash- they are driving incredible bikes from back in the day (1952) and believe it or not- are heading to Mongolia as well!
The plan is to set off in the morning together for the Russian border, with any luck, reaching it in 5 or 6 days.
Then, at LONG last- IT’S MONGOLIA!!!!!!!!!
Very excited about the imminent arrival of a complete Vespa, and dying to hit the road- so all good news from Kazakhstan and if you don’t hear from me for a bit, it means I’m finally moving!
Until next time- adios!
RIGHT- SO ...The challenge of getting broken Grettle back to Bishkek turned into an ordeal not fit for the faint-hearted...
The nice man who had towed me to the Kazakh border during breakdown number 1, had stayed in touch, and kindly offered all the help he possibly could.
He was in Astana, but got through to his nephew in Almaty, who came to the rescue, and turned up outside Amigo Hostel in a large car to give us a lift. Unfortunately it was not large enough for dear Grettle, and after two attempts at squeezing her into his boot, we gave up, and drove off to find a taxi rank. I had a small budget of 10,000 Tenge to get us over the border and back to Bishkek, so we went off with the intention of some serious haggling.
A large, red-faced Russian man with close set eyes, and an untrustworthy air about him, agreed to take us there for 15,000 T, and not a penny less. Beyond my budget, I shook my head and began to consider hitchhiking instead. The kind nephew however, insisted on paying the extra 5000 T for me, and gave it to the Russian taxi driver, before waving goodbye, and leaving the two of us to go back to the hostel and load up Grettle.
Unfortunately, the taxi was not the ideal Vespa carrier either; the seats inside, although they could be folded down, could not slide forward to make enough room to fit Grettle in upright.
We gave it a try however, heaved her front wheel up, then her rear end, pushed and pulled and huffed and puffed, but it was clear she was simply not going to fit!
The taxi driver started getting angry, and turned an unnerving shade of red as he began shrugging his shoulders impatiently, shouting god knows what into my ear, and flinging his arms up in defiance.
Although a small bike, little Grettle is still the sum of a hell of a lot of heavy metal and must weigh around 100kg, so trying to pick her up with only two people was a challenge, and one that clearly the taxi driver felt he had neither signed up for, nor had any patience for!
Trying to think of a solution, and stay calm, i suggested we tried to fit her in through the passenger door instead of the boot. This worked well but unfortunately she was an inch too long for the doors to close. I pulled the tow rope from my bag, and suggested leaving the doors open and strapping Grettle in securely. This went down extraordinarily badly and triggered yet more angry yells, violent hand gesturing and mutterings of Polizia!
So, once again, we squeezed and pulled, lifted Grettle back out of the car and tried a third way; to flip her side ways and lay her on top of the folded seats. I got some extra help from the hostel, and now had a team of people and quite the crowd, as we heaved her once again into the car. At last we had done it...every bit of Grettle was now inside the taxi and all the doors could close...SUCCESS!
Unfortunately, the taxi driver did not see the situation as a success in the slightest, far from it. During the shoving and pushing and pulling, Grettle had torn a small seam in one of the seats, splashed a bit of oil on the covers, and smeared a trail of black rubber along the ceiling where her handle bar had been forced, might i add, by the taxi driver himself!
He was furious about his car and refused to go anywhere, so yet again we carried Grettle back out of the taxi. He then refused to give back anymore than 2000 T of the 5000 T that the nice nephew had lent me, shouting that if i complained, he would give me nothing at all! He stormed off in the taxi, and that was that!
I messaged my friend in Astana updating him of the goings on at Amigo Hostel, after which he kindly organized a third vehicle to come to the hostel and pick us up.
While I was waiting for it to arrive, I received an email from Dad, saying that the road Currier had refused to take the second hand engine after all, for the same reason that it couldn't be flown. Having then got in touch with a specialist Currier, he informed me that even if it was possible to take the engine by road, it would take no less than 28 days!
If i had to wait an entire month, probably more, for the engine to arrive, there was not much chance of reaching Ulaanbaatar before the beginning of September, at which point my new job would have started, and I, no doubt, would be stuck in the middle of a river somewhere in Western Mongolia!
A bit of a sticky wicket eh?
If the engine could neither come by air nor road, what was I to do? Was there any point in going to the hassle of carting Grettle off to Bishkek, when there would be no parts to collect there? After all, it was certainly not proving an easy task!
Desperately searching for a plan C, I made a hurried phone call to a number of a mechanic in Almaty, that I had been sent by a Kazakh friend a couple of weeks previously. I hastily reeled off the current situation and asked if he thought there was any chance of finding help in Almaty. To my amazement and relief, he not only spoke English, but also said he knew a scooter expert, who could take the engine apart that evening and find out exactly which parts i needed, so that I could send them separately from the UK to Almaty in a few working days! He seemed to think that sending separate parts as oppose to sending an entire engine would be no trouble at all by air. He advised me to stay in Kazakhstan and cancel the lift to Bishkek.
This proved a little tricky since the third van had just arrived, and an awkward conversation in Renglish then followed, as i tried to apologize and explain that i didn't need the van and would not be going to Bishkek after all!
Having cancelled the lift and beginning to feel a little warn out (it was by this point about 12am, and the Grettle loading saga had started at least 6 hours previously) I got through to the scooter expert; Egor, who showed up only moments later to pick up Grettle and take her back to his work shop.
He was a very nice young man, and believe it or not, had three Vespas of his own! He proudly showed me a picture of himself driving a tangerine orange Vespa in an exotic backdrop, before getting down to some serious Grettle business. Amusingly, it transpired that Egor knew Grettle already; apparently she was quite famous in Kazakhstan after a series of pictures had been posted over Facebook and shared between the Kazakh community of the two of us last year. It turned out that Egor was a big supporter and very keen to do everything he could to help out!
I found a traveler in the hostel that spoke both Russian and English, who kindly agreed to come out to the parking lot and translate for us. Once Egor knew of all the problems I had been encountering of late, we formed a plan for the next day, before he and his friend took Grettle away. They did so in a truly inspirational way; with his friend driving a scooter, and Egor sitting on Grettle, the friend drove beside and slightly behind Egor, with his leg outstretched and pushing Grettle along with his foot. As i saw them both whizzing off down the road, it suddenly occurred to me that the bolt holding Grettle's back wheel in place was a little loose, and so I rushed inside to send a hurried sms to Egor telling him to take care. Thankfully there were no accidents, and I received a message back moments later, telling me that both he and Grettle were safe and sound in his work shop, and he was about to begin the big dismantling.
I went to his place the next morning to see each and every part of her destroyed engine on the work surface. We took photos of all the parts i needed, doing our best to translate them all from Russian to English, so that i could tell Dad exactly which bits we needed from the second hand engine we'd already brought in the UK.
A rather pitiful looking piston...
Along with the piston, the parts needed are:
chain oil pump
and front variata...
Quite a list!
Having got all this information through to Dad, I stayed in Almaty a couple more nights before taking the bus back, once again, to Bishkek. I couldn't linger much longer in Almaty because my two week Kazakh Visa was about to expire and there was no knowing how long the dismantling, cleaning and sending of the engine parts would take, let alone, if it would pass through customs at all!
So 2 weeks ago, it was sent back from the Currier in the north of England, to my mechanic down South in Bridport; Clive,who kindly dismantled it, cleaned it, and wrote a letter confirming the latter. Last Friday it was successfully sent off from the UK to Egor in Almaty, and with any luck will arrive today or tomorrow! HURRAY!
I have applied for my THIRD Russian transit visa while here in Bishkek, have been granted 10 days to cross the country from the 31st July-10th August, and told it will be ready to collect tomorrow morning, so IF all goes to plan, it looks like I might finally get into Mongolia by the first week of August!
I'm waiting with baited breath to hear word from Egor about the arrival of Grettle's organs, and hope to set off for Almaty tomorrow afternoon, having collected my Russian visa.
As Chris rather marvelously put it, it seems as if I am playing Central Asian pin ball at the moment! The border guards between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are already suspicious of my frequent appearances at passport control, and the last time I crossed through, I was rather heavily questioned about it. The whole story of the Vespa sounded so ridiculous that I can only imagine they think I am smuggling drugs at this rate! Having said this, with any luck, tomorrow will be my fifth and final visit to this particular border, and the last of Kyrgyzstan!
Since leaving Grettle with Egor, it has to be said, my time in Bishkek has not been TOO taxing- I have found a hostel here with a pool, have my tent pitched beside it for $5 per day, meeting some nice dorks, eating plenty of shashlyk, and partying probably a little too much!
Very excited at the prospect of being back on the road at long last, and will update you with news as I hear it....until then, Adios!
Well to put it lightly, things have not gone QUITE to plan...
Grettle has been awfully sick, seen many doctors, broken down one too many times, and the general consensus is, that the specialized treatment required to make her well again, is one that must be issued from the UK...a new ENGINE!
To step back a couple of weeks, I had a wonderful trip around the stunning Issyk Kul and Son Kul lakes in Kyrgyzstan, whilst waiting for my various visas. I traveled with the Israeli chap mentioned in my previous post; Eldad (driving the 125 cc motorcycle), and two french chums, who hitchhiked and hopped on various machrutkas to keep up.
Grettle kept her spirits up for a good 1000 km and made it up to 3500 meters over the mountain passes before giving up the ghost entirely back in Bishkek. We camped along the lake shores, swam in the icy water, cooked up meals and generally had a very merry 10 days together...
It was having got back from the lakes that the trouble began...
Having finally got all the necessary visas sorted, I set off in high spirits to meet Eldad in Almaty, from where we would set off together to the Russian border and begin the epic journey across Mongolia....or so I thought!
I had just crossed the border into Kazakhstan when a loud bang brought us abruptly to a sticky halt.
I was in the middle of nowhere, had absolutely no Kazakh currency, no working phone, no internet signal, no cigarettes, and to make matters worse, the only sign of life near by was a small Muslim cafe where there was of course, no beer, and no fags!
No-one spoke English but the few Kazakh locals that loitered near by soon got the gist of the problem, one of whom kindly brought me a local sim card. I contacted the only person I knew in Almaty; Michael; the chap I had met on an adventure around the singing sand dunes a year previously, and the man who I had just finished a painting commission for. He managed to get through to Alexander, the nice Kyrgyz mechanic who knows Grettle all too well, and as it was, had opened up her engine to check up on things that very morning!
My hope was that Alex might appear like a knight in shining armor, pick the two of us up, and get us back to his shop in Bishkek for examination and fixing.
Having finally got through to Alex, it transpired that he had lost his passport and so could not get into Kazakhstan to collect us, but offered incredibly kindly, to come as far as he could; to the Kyrgyz side of the border, where he would meet us with a car, and get us back to Bishkek.
The challenge then was finding a way to get Grettle back to the border...
Whilst pondering over this, I was brought lunch by a man with an entire set of gold teeth and a wide grin, who had muttered about a truck coming at 9pm to pick us up. As time tends to go in Central Asia, 9pm came and went and i wondered, as the stream of cars grew thinner and thinner, how i would make it to Alex by the pre-arranged time of 10pm. My sim would not carry through to Kyrgyzstan where Alex was, and every phone call i tried to make would cut out in a matter of seconds. This combined with the fact that Alex barely spoke any English, made any plan, let alone a change of plan, extremely testing!
Thankfully, a nice young Kazakh man came to sit at my table, and to my surprise spoke very good English. He was eager to help but unfortunately his car was far too small to fit Grettle inside.
A look of horror appeared on his face, as I drew an old and rapidly deteriorating piece of rope from the broken underbelly of Grettle, tied one end of it around her head lamp, and dangled the other imploringly by the back of his car.
I had only just finished persuading him that towing the two of us would be very safe indeed and no problem at all, when, just as he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the main road, the rope snapped in two!
Oh dear! I thought, hoping this had not put him off all together. Luckily, it had not, and off we set on the second attempt. Time of the essence, I would periodically text him from Grettle, letting him know it was safe to up the speed, and receiving responses such as 'safety first!', he slowly towed me the 30 km to the border. The rope broke for the second time just before the gates...it was perfect timing, and all was well, we had made it!
I pushed Grettle back through border control, and through several astonished and perplexed looking police officers, to find Alex waiting, as promised, at the gate with a car.
We reached Bishkek at midnight and I hopped out, thanking him enormously for all his help, and spent the night, or what was left of it, at Nomads Home.
The following day it transpired that her injuries were severe, more so even than eight months previously when her engine had to be rebuilt. It was in fact exactly the same problem; one to do with the output valve, which had broken along with many other important bits and pieces inside her engine. I was told the only solution within my time frame, was to rebuild the engine head once again, using Chinese parts, which, i was warned, had an unknown but most likely short, life expectancy.
Without another option i opted for this. It took three days to fix her up, and dear Alex worked on her solidly, finally finishing at 1am on the third morning. I went to pick her up in the dead of night, and now extremely late to meet Eldad, who had been waiting in Almaty for me, set off at crack of dawn to meet him that morning.
All was well, and it was a delight to be back on the road. I tracked down Eldad in Almaty and we set off towards the Russian border late afternoon. The weather was atrocious, the wind unyielding, and the rain so heavy I could barely make out the road through my open helmet. We camped on the shores of a lake just north of the city, witnessed a stunning sunset, and slept in collapsing tents as a ferocious storm broke out that evening...
All was well until the following day, when a large puff of black smoke and a small explosion marked the start of the soon to be - epic saga of the Grettle brake-downs. Exactly the same thing had happened again-
The first thought that came to mind was that Eldad could tow me as far as the next village where we could find internet and sort out a plan. The only one that we both agreed could possibly work at this point, was ordering a new engine, and one that was designed for a Vespa, since clearly Chinese organs inside my Italian baby, were simply not going to work...this had been the third breakdown caused by the same problem, and so severe this time, that the engine had stopped rotating altogether.
The two of us looked a little ridiculous it has to be said, a 125cc towing a small Vespa at snails pace down the highway. I was having a splendid time but unfortunately Eldad's bike; Blitzy, was not, and eventually the extra weight became too much for his small engine.
I hailed down a passing car, the driver of which agreed to tow me to the village 30 km away. It was a fun ride, and we whizzed along the highway, at times faster than Grettle had ever gone with her engine intact! Terrifying bits of off-road or gravel surface would send my stomach into my mouth, as the two mad drivers in the car, zoomed at the speed of light through the rubble, every time almost sending Grettle and I into the dust.
Thank fully we made it in one piece but unfortunately, the idea of internet in this village was highly optimistic; we arrived at a cluster of closed shops and very little else, and it soon transpired we would have to get her to the next city; Taldykorgan; about 100 km further north.
Waiting with thumbs stuck out once again, eventually a nice man pulled over and we heaved Grettle into the back of his van...the perfect Grettle carrier it has to be said...
We sped along happily until reaching Taldykorgan, where he dropped me off at a small hotel. We heaved Grettle out of the boot and having thanked him very much, booked my self in for a night to sort out what on earth to do next.
Before any of this however, it was time for an icy cold beer and a relax...the last two days had been fairly chaotic to say the least! One brew, as it usually does, soon turned to two, and then three, as I was joined by a group of bikers who showed up moments after I had. After the late night, Eldad went on ahead in the morning, and I was left, terribly hungover, feeling a little low, a little alone, and very stuck in Taldykorgan!
Later that afternoon, I manged to get through to my dear old stoats (parents) in the UK and we came up with the plan of flying an engine out on the next available flight.
By the evening, we had found a second hand engine for 175 squid, which would be sent out this Saturday on a flight to Almaty. Fantastic news! It even made it potentially possible to reach Russia in time for my transit visa...
The fact that the engine would land in Almaty, meant of course that i then had to find yet another lift 300 km back south in order to sign for the engine when it was scheduled to arrive in a few days time.
So once again, I stood by the side of the road, attempting to flag down any car that looked like it was big enough to haul Grettle inside.
A crowd of people soon gathered around intrigued by this unusual spectacle, and soon i had a team of helpers. One of the men slipped 2000 tenge into my pocket to help out with the cost of the ride, and another appeared with a large sheet of paper which he taped to the front of Grettle, and scribbled on it AATA (ALMATY) in large letters, next to the address of the hostel i planned to stay in.
She had soon gathered a lot of interest; a chap approached to study my sign curiously, and eventually agreed to take the two of us to Almaty for 5000 tenge (about 10 dollars).
We all heaved and squeezed her into the boot of his car, after which the usual photo shoot took place, with lots of Kazakh men grinning widely, making peace signs arm in arm around Grettle, until finally it was time to go. Fairly relieved, I hopped into the car, along with a family of three, and off we set, for Almaty...
I arrived safe and sound a couple of days ago, but I'm afraid to say the saga continues....
Yesterday I received a call from dad informing me that the airline had rejected the engine for safety reasons, and so my plans for fixing her up this Saturday and making it into Russia before my Visa expires have been thwarted badly!
So...Plan B...By Road!
My wonderful parents are currently in touch with a road Currier and we are waiting to hear on a quote and a time frame for delivering the engine by road. This will most likely take over two weeks, by which point my Kazakh visa will have expired, along with my Russian Visa, and so the plan is to head back to Bishkek and wait for the engine there.
Will update you soon...presently trying to find yet another lift with Grettle down to Bishkek. I have my fingers crossed the Currier team can make it a hell of a lot quicker than the three months it took Grettle and I to chug slowly across half the world!
Click the button Text below....
So – seven months of Mongolia and teaching has gone by in the blink of an eye, and I find myself back in Bishkek, at long last, reunited with Grettle once again!
I am no longer driving the Karakorum highway into India, but instead taking on a 7000 km drive from here, back to Ulaanbaatar (with a minor detour into Uzbekistan to pick up my Russian transit visa).
I loved Mongolia so much that I decided to stay another year. I have a new job teaching sport part-time starting this August at the American School of Ulaanbaatar, a fabulous basement/art studio to live in, and a plan to spend most of my time making sculpture, offering private art classes, tuition, taking on commissions, and training up a little puppy that I plan to pick up in happy paws pet shop on my return to UB!
I suppose the main reason for this somewhat sudden change of plan came from an unlikely invitation from an English accountant working in Ulaanbaatar, to go bollarcking and ice fishing for the weekend.
This all came about through a total miscommunication between myself and a man that I met at my Grandmother’s funeral in February.
This man had understood from a brief conversation we held together, that I would be driving alone on a Vespa through Mongolia in November- an understandable mistake to make I admit, since this had at one point, mad as it sounds, been the plan! He had got in touch with Chris, the English accountant, who had in turn contacted me, offering, very kindly, any help if I needed rescuing along the way!
He had also taken a look at my art and decided to commission me to paint him a ‘proud and woolly camel’ on route.
Accepting the commission, but explaining the misunderstanding, I informed him I was in fact already in Ulaanbaatar and had begun my new job teaching at Hobby School.
Now, along with the somewhat sensible side to Chris’s life as the boss of a successful accounting company, there is a totally wacky and ever so slightly mad side to his current life in Mongolia. A keen cricketer from a young age, Chris, along with a Mongolian Judo champion named Battulga, have joined forces to build Mongolia’s first ever cricket pitch!
He soon re-thought his proud and woolly camel commission and asked instead for a series of paintings depicting Mongolian animals playing cricket!
It was whilst arranging a time to meet and discuss this extraordinary request that the invitation of a weekend bollarcking and ice fishing came to be. I accepted this slightly odd offer from a total stranger and joined him, and a couple of others on an escapade in to the Mongolian countryside.
During the four hour drive to the Ger camp, among many other things, we got chatting about his commission. It had started out as a series of four or five paintings, but soon escalated into a wild idea to paint the entire Mongolian cricket team- now referred to as the Mongol X1 and the Marmot Umpire.
Prints of the paintings and the originals would be exhibited the following month, at a fund raiser for the building of the cricket pitch, held at the British embassy in UB, called ‘A day at the Races’.
The day consisted of horse racing on a large screen, where people would place their bets, and win either a bottle of vino or a member of the Mongol Cricket team as a prize. All the money raised went towards the building of the cricket pitch, which is now well on its way, and the grass seed is being planted as I write this.
The day was a huge success, with many people, and many prints sold, but money is still needed for the cricket pitch, and the prints of the Mongol X11 can be found in my portfolio. Do take a look if you are interested- the team members are as follows:
The Mountain Weasel- First Batsman
The Batting Yak- 5th Batsman
Camel Carrying Bat
The Gobi Bear- Wicket Keeper
Eagle at Fly Slip
Cricket- The bad Sportsman
The Stray- Star Catcher
Horsing Around in the Outfield
The Padded Argali
The Snow Leopard Bowler- Line and Length
The Marmot Umpire
The weekend at the ice lake was fabulous fun, freezing cold, and a great adventure- in fact my first out of the city since arriving in mid-November! Although having said this, I must admit, we did not have the slightest bit of success when it came to catching any fish, and as it turned out, there was not enough wind for any bollarcking -a bollark- if you were wondering- resembles a gocart with a sail that can speed over land or ice...a wonderful idea in my opinion!
The procedure for ice fishing was really quite bizarre, one would use an ingenious instrument known as an auger, to screw a whole through the 6 feet of ice and into the lake. Then wait very quietly, clutching a ridiculously small plastic rod (about 3 inches in length) and dangle the line with small bate hooked to its end through the hole in the ice and into the water beneath.
I think our difficulties and lack of catch was most likely due to the fact that out party of people was somewhat louder than any other (all of whom seemed to be catching hundreds of fresh, chunky fish every few minutes) and the noise level, consistent with the lack of any catch, grew greater as the dry martinis started to flow, and the picnic box was cracked open. All in all however, it transpired to be a great weekend away from the city!
I returned to my apartment to begin the commission of the Mongol X1 and soon got to know this mad English accountant rather well. One thing led to another, and after one too many karaoke sessions out on the town, we soon became more than friends, and hence... the slight change of plan!
I have my fingers crossed that there will be no difficulties when I return to UB with my other half (Grettle)- one can only hope that the two of them get along, and that a menage-a-trios situation will go down smoothly and peacefully with both parties...
So- all in all, it’s pretty great to be back in Bishkek, and I am beside myself with excitement to be back on the open road once again!
Yesterday, I met an Israeli chap who is also, believe it or not, driving from Bishkek to Mongolia on a 125CC in a couple of weeks’ time, so we may join forces and tackle the road together!
In the mean time I have a slight hurdle to hop…Since having everything stolen in Bishkek, I have no bike importation form for Grettle, and due to a new rule, I will not be able to leave Kazakhstan without one…legally…so fingers crossed the Kazakh border officials are nice and corrupt and open to a bit of innocent bribery…otherwise I fear for poor Grettle being squashed into a small metal box, and me being carted off to a Kazakh cell for the foreseeable future.
The other slight snitch is that she has also overstayed her allowed import time by 6 months! EEK! Anyway, time will tell on these things- so wish me luck and let the adventure commence!!!!!
England to Kyrgyzstan by Vespa 125
My journey began in deepest darkest Dorset, craving the open road, fresh inspiration, and an adventure to write about.
Accompanied by my much-loved Vespa, otherwise known as Grettle, and side-wing, Travel Frog, I decided to embark on a journey east, from the Jurassic coastline in Dorset, to Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia.
I'm a somewhat impulsive 24 year old artist, a single female, and free at last from the clutches of institution. With the world as my oyster, a blank canvas on which to paint a colorful story, I set off into the unknown.
11,000 miles, 106 days, 19 countries, 1 puncture, 3 landslides, 4 river crossings, 1 crash, 1 avalanche, several police encounters, many marmots, 1 mugging, and hundreds of camels later, Grettle and I have made it to Bishkek, and live to tell the tale!
I stuffed as many clothes as I could under my seat, piled my leather panniers with paint tubes and Pritt-stick, filled my yellow top box with a sleeping bag and sketch books, and strapped a tent to the top of it all.
Knowing about as much about mechanics as my dear mother knows about our computer, I set off without tools, without spare parts, and with little idea where my battery was. I bid farewell to two somewhat nervous parents, scooted to Dover, and boarded a ferry to Calais.
It took me 2 rainy weeks to cross France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, on an indirect route to Austria’s capital, Salzburg. A hugely exciting stop for the three of us, for it is in fact, Grettle’s home town. She is named (as has become tradition with any bike I have bought or rented) after a character in the film The Sound of Music, in this case, the youngest child of the Von Trapp family.
In the past, I have been lucky enough to own a Fraulein Helga, who showed me a fabulous couple of months around the south of India, a Frau Schmidt (the housekeeper), who opened my eyes to the beautiful north Indian Himalayas, and a Baroness Schraeder, who accompanied me through the lush green countryside of Laos. So it was with great pleasure that we scooted around the Sound of Music sites, before setting off southwest on a beautiful sunny day, for the Grossglockner alpine pass.
The beginning of the pass was marked by the fine silvery snake-like line of Krimml Falls, in front of which was a red and yellow signpost. At the top, it read 'Alpine Pass!' and below this was a picture of a motorbike, the rider of which appeared to be driving headlong into a sharp red triangle with a lightning bolt in its center. Despite its slightly disturbing nature, the signpost amused me; it reminded me of those one finds in the Indian Himalayas, such as 'Big curve ahead, check your nerve!' and 'Don’t be silly in the hilly'.
Willing Grettle forwards as we slowed to a speed only marginally faster than snail’s pace, our moment of glory came, during a thrilling five mile an hour overtake, of the only other Vespa tackling the alpine pass. I felt immediately fond of the old man who was riding it; he wore a yellow poncho, wellington boots, and a helmet that bounced up and down in rhythm with his efforts to tackle the slope. Finding a friend at long last, we nodded and smiled at one and other, as Grettle overtook for the first time that day at what felt like the speed of light.
About half way up the pass, a large group of bikers had paused to take some snap shots of the view. As Grettle and I made our lengthily approach towards them, their gaze and cameras turned on us, and they began whooping loudly, cheering us on as we chugged slowly passed them. With this kind of gentle mockery and support around every turn, we eventually made it up to biker’s point which marked the top of the pass.
I parked Grettle at the end of a long line of smart black BMW’s, straddled by their hulky Italian riders, and sat to sketch the breath-taking view over the Dolomite Mountains. I ate a sandwich and smiled, as I watched a family inspecting Grettle curiously. I approached them to introduce her, and we soon began talking of my trip. They looked a little taken-a-back when I explained my impending plans, the father tilted his head in a pitying gesture, ‘poor girl…lost her marbles’ I could hear him thinking. The son was grinning widely however, and had clearly taken a liking to both Grettle, and her coming adventures.
Having bid them goodbye, the little boy ran back to me, and stuffed a 10 euro note into my hands. ‘Good luck’ he wished me, before darting back to catch up with his parents.
From the snow-capped peaks of the alpine mountains, to the sun, sand and sea of the Mediterranean, Grettle, Travel Frog and I journeyed through the dramatic scenery of Slovenia, to the coastline of Croatia, through the barren, rocky, lake-filled landscapes of Montenegro and Albania, to Greece, camping along the coastline until reaching Turkey.
On the border of Croatia and Montenegro, I was offered a job to teach art in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. This came as the perfect solution to my rapidly decreasing funds, so I accepted gladly, aiming to reach the capital by the end of July.
Having arrived in Istanbul, I became horribly lost in my attempt to find the hostel which I had booked the previous evening. I stopped to ask for directions near the airport, and misunderstood the gestured response. Before I knew it, I was driving the wrong direction down the motorway, rounded a corner, and crashed head-on with a hefty van. Poor Grettle lay smashed to smithereens under its front wheel, smoke bellowed out from her upturned belly, oil covered the road, and I was carried off on a stretcher to the local state hospital.
My experience in this chaotic and crowded place was one of the worst of the trip. I was bundled out of the ambulance, wheeled in on a trolley, left tucked into one of the crowded corridors, and told somebody would come. Nobody did, so sometime later I struggled off the trolley to find help, a large needle still protruding from my left arm. Failing dismally, unable to communicate with anyone in Turkish, a young boy came to the rescue. He must have been no older than 14, and wore a large cast over his right arm. He found me a wheel chair, since my trolley bed had been pinched by another patient in my absence, and wheeled me around the hospital, until we found a nurse to clean up the bloody gashes, and tend to my bumps and bruises.
X-rays showed no broken bones, which was a huge relief, and I was piled into a police car, to undergo a grueling few hours in the station, filling out forms, and giving my statement.
‘Did you know you were driving the wrong direction?’ one of the officers asked me. Unable at this point to see anything remotely amusing about this question, I clenched my fists ‘I do now’ I replied through gritted teeth.
I was desperate to see Grettle and the damage that had been done that morning. With the help of some local police officers we found her later that evening, in a large scrapyard amidst a heap of other broken vehicles. Having been informed she was a write-off, and wondering whether to opt for horse or camel to continue my journey, I was over the moon to discover she was fixable.
I was invited to spend that night with the police officers who shared a flat outside the city center, whilst a young mechanic welded Grettle’s front fork back into place, hammered her into shape, and reassembled her entangled electrics. Once we had fully recovered, both from the effects of the crash, and those of a rather unpleasant mixture of red wine and Sprite, or rather, ‘medicine’, as the police officers called it; we set off for the Black Sea coastline in high spirits.
I was greeted with such gracious hospitality, that I spent the entire week in the care of local families, fisherman, farmers and café owners. One particular spot will always remain in my memory: a stunning little cove with a small café on the water’s edge, where three chaps idled away their hours, feasting on fresh fish, playing Turkish instruments, drinking wine, and watching the sun rise and set over the little bay.
One was a little older than me; he had a cheeky chimp-like face and held a humorous and attractive manner. His elder was a large, balding man with a prominent roman nose and a talent for music, who rather took on the role of father figure during my stay there. And the oldest must have been well into his 90’s; he wore a large turban around his head, clasped an old walking stick, and puffed away at a constant supply of cigarettes.
Despite a complete lack of English, language proved to be no barrier, and I spent a fabulous few days with these three gentlemen, enjoying seafood on the house, and cruising the Black Sea by starlight, in a brilliant pink pedal boat. In fact the youngest chap and I got along so well, that much to the father figure’s annoyance, he abandoned the little café that had seen no customer other than myself over the past few days, and joined me on my journey up the coast line, following Grettle and I in his Audi until reaching Samsun.
Having bid farewell to my new friend, I continued along the winding road, hugging the coast line until reaching Georgia. I spent a night or two in Batumi, before heading southeast through some lush and mountainous landscape, en route to the country’s capital; Tbilisi. Three days passed before an unruly flood materialized, and the zoo broke out. As the bears roamed the roof tops, the lions liaised on the streets, and the tigers terrorized the tourists, Grettle and I made a swift get-away into Azerbaijan.
As I was sailing happily down the highway, enjoying the good quality road surface after the pot-hole and cow-covered Georgian roads, I noticed a police car in my wing mirror, flashing its indicator behind me. Unaware of having done anything wrong, I continued to drive. To my horror, they accelerated up beside me, and pulled me over.
‘Money’ appeared to be the only word of English they knew, which they repeated angrily several times, whilst prodding the small bag strung around my hip and pointing at Grettle’s speedometer. I pretended at first simply not to understand, shrugging my shoulders, and playing dumb; the idea of Grettle speeding was quite ridiculous, but here we were, and there was nothing I could do about it.
With no alternative, I opened my wallet. They saw a 50 Manat note and took it, then saw another, and took that; practically all the money I had withdrawn from a cash point twenty minutes previously. Having only just crossed the border, I had no idea what the exchange rate was.
Outraged, and upset, feeling robbed, I pulled over at the next café I saw, sat down and had a beer. To my frustration, two men approached me as I sat down to drink. 'We saw your bike, and followed you here' they said smiling happily. This was in every way, the last thing I wanted to hear.
The driver, whose name I later learned to be Rashad, pushed on despite my obvious reluctance to enter into conversation. He asked me why I was upset, so I explained what had happened 10 minutes previously. 'This Vespa....for speeding?' he laughed. Not yet finding the whole thing in the least bit amusing, I nodded, irritated by his jovial attitude. My heart sank a little further, as it transpired that 100 Manat was the equivalent of 100 Euros; 2 weeks-worth of my current budget.
‘Azeri people are not like these mother-fuckers’ he told me, ‘If you like, we will go and find these men, and get your money back’. I considered this whole plan highly unlikely, but deciding I had nothing to lose, went with him in a taxi to a police check point, about 10km from the café.
There followed many phone calls, during which I was asked to describe the officers. My memory appeared to have gone blank; I could neither remember whether either had a mustache; apparently a key factor in the search, nor, where exactly I had been stopped. Nevertheless, the search and calls continued, and after about 15 minutes, word was spread that the officers had been found.
'These policemen have done wrong' I was told, as a young lady ushered me into the kitchens and cooked me up some lunch, and plenty of hot chai. Not long after this, the chief of police handed me note by note, my 100 Manat back. I couldn’t believe it; I had been paid back! In fact, between the two of us, we even made a 50 Manat profit from the police encounter. The whole day was becoming quite extraordinary.
Rashad then insisted I sat and drank beers to celebrate the good news, and so my drive to Baku was rather delayed. Deciding to set off whilst the going was good however, I declined his rather tempting offer to smoke marijuana in a 2000+ year old village, where the houses are made of bottles, and bid farewell to the nice bunch at the bar.
As the sun began to set, I still had a good few hours of driving ahead of me. The wind had gathered something rotten, and Grettle was being swept ruthlessly over the road. On seeing two large dump trucks at a near-by mechanics, I decided to try and hitch a lift. I sidled in and asked the two men working there, if the trucks were going to Baku.
Language on this occasion proved to be an unyielding barrier, and it took a long game of charades, before the men comprehended that I was looking for a lift. It became apparent the trucks were going nowhere however, and so reaching the conclusion I must continue, I was making my way back to Grettle, when the men stopped me. Through further wild gesturing and body language, swirling their hands above their heads, and shouting Baku, they implied that the wind was even worse nearer the city.
The mechanics, who turned out to be father and son, suggested I journeyed tomorrow when the weather would be calmer, and spend the night in their family home, 3km from the garage. We communicated figures by drawing numbers in the sand, and times of day, by cupping the sunlight in our hands, and either lifting them for the sun rise, or lowering them for the sun set.
I agreed, and we left Grettle tucked up beneath a suspended car in the garage, before driving on to the house. After 3km had gone by at least eighteen times, I wondered where on earth we were going. It transpired that they had decided I needed a shower, and we were on our way for 'Douche'.
At least an hour passed before we arrived at a public shower, where I was handed a towel and some soap, and lead into a small, dank dungeon with a small hole in the wall, through which a trickle of warm water was drizzling. I had a quick shower after which we drove the long drive back to the family home. I couldn’t help but contemplate that in the time it had taken these gentlemen to drive me to ‘douche’, we could have already made it to Baku and back twice already.
When we finally arrived at the household, I was introduced to the many bambinos, sisters, brothers, parents and grand-parents, and after some home cooked Azeri doughnuts, was lead into a bedroom, which I shared with one of the women and her small child. I woke early to continue my extremely delayed drive to Baku, where I had arranged to stay with my cousin, William, who lives and works in the city center.
As the mechanics had predicted, the wind had died down, and I arrived in Baku early, to be greeted by William outside Megafun. He struggled nervously onto the passenger seat, and we scooted off to find his place, which lay amidst a bubble of sheik shops, high rise flats, smart hotels, and expensive but eerily empty stores.
The European Games had commenced that day and the city had been massively glammed-up for the event. Having driven through the almost desert-like Azeri landscape, it was most peculiar arriving into this bizarre bubble of glamour and glitz.
Having failed to squeeze Grettle into the lift that led to the 15th floor of Will’s block, we left her outside, and ascended to his apartment. I was shown to my room, where a sofa bed was unfolded beside a small balcony that overlooked the city. It was certainly the most deluxe place I had stayed so far, and quite a shock to the system to say the least.
Will treated me to a delicious breakfast to celebrate my arrival; we feasted on an enormous buffet in the Marriot Hotel, until my shrunken stomach was so swollen I could barely stand up. It was a grand place, and I looked dreadfully under-dressed in my torn harems, flip-flops, and Indian head band, amidst a swarm of wealthy families breakfasting in their finest linens.
The day continued in the same vein, and we went on to meet Uncle Hugh at the Hiatt Hotel. My uncle was on a business trip of some kind with Lord Risby, who I was promptly introduced to in the sugar lounge, before being led to a smart and alarmingly electric blue pool, for a sunbathe and swim. The dress code, or rather lack of it, on this occasion was a far greater problem than it had been previously.
My bikini, which had been tied to air-dry to the back of Grettlle, had been shredded badly and drenched in yellowish oil during the crash. I came to the conclusion that it would be considerably worse to wear this than my clothes, so I swam in a pair of very worn and torn denim shorts, and a filthy orange crop-top; the resulting attire stuck out like a saw thumb amidst the sea of see-through gowns, blink bikinis and Dior shades.
To round off this day of utter extravagance and minor embarrassment, William, Uncle Hugh, Lord Risby and myself then proceeded to the roof top of the Hilton Hotel, to dine on Chinese!
My few days of luxury came to an abrupt halt however on realizing I had reached the fourth day of my 5-day transit visa. Having made a visit to the Azeri embassy, I was a little alarmed to discover that an extension was not possible, that I would be granted 48 hours to leave the county, and that on top of it all, I would have to pay a colossal 300 Euro fine. My plan had been to cross the Caspian Sea by cargo ship to Kazakhstan, but unfortunately this was rather a game for the gamblers; the ship would remain anchored until full, and no one appeared to have any idea when this might be.
The opening party for the European Games had commenced the evening prior to my arrival, during which the British ambassador had got to hear about my journey through William. Just as panic was beginning to set in, we were invited to the embassy for an interview. The resulting article began: Emma Trenchard arrived in Baku on 14 June having traveled from London on a Vespa 125 to support the Great Britain Team at the 2015 Games.
Amused by the slight twist in story, I then felt rather obliged to spend the rest of my day supporting GB in the water polo semi-finals, and attempting to put my banishment from the county to the back of my mind. The match was mind-numbingly dull, so I was rather relieved on all fronts, when it was interrupted by a telephone call, informing me that the cargo ship would be leaving the port in 3 hours’ time, for Kazakhstan.
It took two somewhat surreal days to cross the Caspian Sea.
Other than myself and several heavy trains, just two other travellers were on board, a mob of drunken Georgians, and an extremely creepy captain, so it was with some relief, that I saw the small speck of Aktau appear on the distant horizon, and we drew in to Kazakhstan.
I drove the first leg of the journey towards Beyneu with a French chap called Baptiste, who was riding a huge bike named Blue Flame. The landscape was most definitely now desert and my first sighting of a camel was all too exciting. We had planned to camp somewhere along the road that night, but failing to find a decent spot to set up the tents, pulled up in front of the only building in sight. It turned out to be a fire station, where we were welcomed by warm smiles and several flustered firemen, who invited us to lodge with them for the night.
Absolutely filthy with dust from the desert, we were led to a wooden shack in the corner of the courtyard, where one of the men, leapt up onto the roof, and began pouring cold buckets of water into the tank at the top. I never thought I would enjoy an icy bucket shower quite so much as I did, and after this moment of bliss, we were taken to the kitchens, to tuck into a feast of potato and veg for supper, washed down with several Kazakh beers.
The chief fireman was due to arrive early the next morning, and so we were woken early, and ushered out of the dormitory by six. By the time Baptiste had suited up in his leathers, and packed and strapped his several bags to Blue Flame, it was actually sometime later that we finally set off. I felt rather glad at this point, that I was travelling so light in comparison; something I shall no doubt regret saying, when faced with the challenge of fixing a Vespa with paint tubes and Pritt-stick!
The road became nothing short of catastrophic the further we scooted into the desert, and I was forced to resort to snail’s pace. After a good few hours of waiting for me to meander around the many potholes and stabilize myself on every patch of sand, interspersed with desperate attempts to sketch every camel I passed, Baptiste decided to say adios. Blue Flame could tackle the road with ease; its sturdy tires could cruise straight over the massive craters and mounds of rubble and sand.
I had no visor attached to my helmet, and so the challenge was made greater by having to shut my eyes every time a truck hurtled past me. Shutting my eyes at the wrong moment however would lead me headlong into a jagged pothole or loose heap of sand; with wheels a third of the size of a bicycles, and no spare tires, it became common practice to pick a line well in advance on type of this terrain, something which proved a valuable trick for what was to come.
A few hours later, concerned for time, darkness drawing in, and lack of food or water for a night's camping, I flagged down a vehicle. It was towing two cars already, so Grettle was secured behind the second. The kind Kazakh man bought me a beer, kitted me out with cigarettes and plenty of ice cold water, before continuing the drive to Beyneu.
About twenty minutes after setting off, we stopped at a little shrine in the middle of absolutely nowhere, where he promptly put on his white cap and prayed for 5 minutes, alongside two other truck drivers who it later transpired were his chums, and the three of them had been driving in convoy.
One of them encountered some kind of problem that I never quite got to the bottom of about 10 minutes later, at which point we all parked in the middle of the desert, stripped the truck to pieces, and began fiddling about with the gear-stick.
Beginning to regret my decision to hitch a lift when we then stopped for some ominous meat and onion dish, I decided it was time to rescue Grettle, reaching the conclusion it was taking a great deal longer with the truck driving rabble, than without.
She had slipped down the side of the trailer and looked horribly uncomfortable; her sides had been banged about something rotten, and the green paint work was rapidly lifting from her bruises. Reluctant to leave me on my own, my friends decided we should drive in convoy after this, and so Grettle had her own beefy body-guard escorts, all the way to Beyneu...lucky Grettle!
Exhausted from the tiring drive, I stayed for two days to recuperate in a little hostel, before embarking on the next leg of my journey into Uzbekistan. My previous map had stopped half way down the black sea coast line, and Beyneu marked the beginning of my Central Asia map, so I was rather excited to be able to see where I was, for the first time in a few thousand miles!
The border was as little as 100 km away, and I had hoped to reach it an hour or two after setting off. This drive took me 6 exhausting hours. The challenge of weaving in and out of hazards and obstacles, reminded me of a certain Play Station game I used to play with an old friend; a race across a colourful rainbow, with lots of jumps, steps, gold coins to grab, holes to hop over, hoops to jump through, beams to duck under, and strange creatures to avoid. When I thought about it like this, I began to rather enjoy the challenge, listening to Mario Kart type music, and trying to outpace the trucks which were kicking dust in my eyes as they bellowed past, honking furiously.
I made it to a remote village called Jaslyk just past the border of Uzbekistan, where I was offered a room in a small cafe. I woke in the morning to a fabulous view of several camels lounging around in front of a stunning, fiery orange sunrise, and sketched for a few hours before setting off for Nukus.
I was wildly overexcited about Nukus, for it was the first town in Uzbekistan that had actually made an appearance, not only on my map, but also in my lonely planet guide book, so you can imagine the disappointment, when I looked it up to find, and I quote 'The isolated, Soviet creation of Nukus is definitely one of Uzbekistan's least appealing cities.....there is actually no reason to come here, other than taking in the general sense of hopelessness and desolation'!
I came across several camels, many herds of horses, scorpions, camel spiders and three cyclists on my way to this hell hole. I had seen no tourists since leaving Baptiste on that god awful road in Kazakhstan, and so was thrilled to hear that they too, were on route to hopelessness and desolation.
At this stage in the game, the temperature was reaching 65 degrees Celsius; ice cold water turned boiling hot within seconds, dizziness would kick in through the vast stretches of nothingness, and cheese became a melted mess within minutes; the heat was exhausting.
It was only when I detected a ghastly smell that I realized Grettle’s battery was melting, and as I drew into a small road-side stall to buy some water, I ground to a sticky halt, somewhere between Bukhara and Samarkand. The moment I stopped, the entire village gathered around to take a look at the unusual spectacle. Delighted that I couldn’t start, as it gave them more time to engage me in conversation, the families drew closer, as I frantically tried to bring Grettle’s kick start to life.
My flip flop boke during this desperate attempt, and a small boy was sent off to find me some new shoes. He reappeared clutching some bright orange jelly shoes, with large plastic flowers sewn onto the toe strips. Despite being very grateful for their kindness, it was with some reluctance that I squeezed into these horribly uncomfortable and absolutely hideous shoes, which, finding no alternative to for some time afterwards, wore for many weeks to come. We found a new battery in the village market, before I embarked on the last leg of my journey through Uzbekistan, out of the desert, and into Samarkand.
So it was with some effort that we tackled this particular stretch of Silk Road, and wandered the ancient cities of Uzbekistan, before making it, at long last, out of the heat, and into the high ground of Tajikistan.
We disappeared into the wilderness of the Pamir Mountains, where one of the worst years of weather to date, caused the catastrophic collapse of the Pamir highway, otherwise known as the M41, as the mountains crumbled before my eyes, the rivers engulfed the roads, entire valleys were flooded, many people were killed, and power cuts plunged the region into darkness.
With a boat only strong enough to take pedestrians across the flood blocking the M41, and a 2 mile climb over the washed-up remnants of the landslide, it was impossible for any vehicles to cross. With only 5 days remaining on my Tajik Visa, Grettle and I had no choice but to tackle the Wakhan Corridor. This panhandled strip of land, lies in the far north eastern corner of Afghanistan, its northern border separating Afghanistan from Tajikistan, is marked by the Indus River, alongside which a dirt track winds its way through the Corridor, wedged between the Pamir mountains, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush.
Alongside the obvious difficulties of attempting this route by Vespa, there lingered the problem of my current battery, which after one particularly challenging mountain pass in the Pamirs, had exploded. The sulphuric acid had leaked through a broken seam in its lid, had corroded the plastic covering the fuse, and lay in a pool around the empty electrical box. The idea of finding a new battery on ‘The roof of the world’ as the locals called it; was laughable.
In hindsight, I suppose her defiant attempts at playing dead were understandable; the previous day, she had been rescued from a river, pulled from a mud pit, and bumped about something rotten, amidst the potholes and boulders which made up the mountain pass. We had gone for it like a bat out of hell, in order to reach a homestay in a small village called Kalaikum before the storms broke out, and the journey had ended with a terrifying and torrential drive through the night, without a working headlight.
I eventually found a local chap nearby, who managed to melt the seams of the battery back together, and gave me some fluid to refill it with when needed. As it turned out, this happened to be every half hour or so, all the way until Osh; a city in southern Kyrgyzstan!
Not far past Kalaikum, on route to Khorog; the next large town, and the gate way to the Wakhan Corridor, I passed a cyclist heading in the opposite direction. He informed me that there had been a disaster flood further up the road, that no vehicles could pass, and advised me to turn back, saying rather red faced and flustered, that the entire area was in a state of collapse, and that he was relieved to be heading out the other side.
I had no time to turn back to Dushanbe, and shuddered at the sheer thought of having to tackle the previous mountain pass for a second time, so I scooted a little further up the road to see for myself, the colossal damage the flood had caused.
Hundreds of people were stuck either side of the valley, and heaps of diggers were at work, attempting to make some form of a bridge over the river. The tsunami sized wave had climbed an incredible 300 meters at least, and one could see the mud covering the houses perched at the top of the valley.
Two motorcyclists approached me as I arrived, and they, along with many others, had been camping for two or three nights, waiting for the road to become passable once again. Before long, fights were breaking out, the army had arrived, and the entire scene was mayhem.
After an hour or two, when it appeared the mud and rubble bridge, would be passable, or at least good enough to hold Grettle, I seized the opportunity to scoot down the valley, wiggle past the diggers, and made it to the other side, before the traffic and mounting road rage had hit its climax.
I spent two idyllic nights camping in the mountains, before reaching Khorog, where it transpired that Grettle’s problems lay a little deeper than the battery itself, which by this point, had been strapped together by band aid from a first aid kit, placed in a makeshift plastic Tupperware box, and glued up several times. In fact, it was a problem with the alternator, which overcharged the battery, causing the acid to boil, the battery to overheat, and frequent explosions to take place.
Having left Khorog, a couple of days passed before I came across my next obstacle. A huge landslide had trapped people on either side of the road, and the mud was so deep that there was nothing for it, but to heave the bikes over the steep cliff to the side of it, where a heap of boulders lay scattered and nerve rackingly unstable in the aftermath of the rock fall.
Grettle was selected first as the scapegoat, since she was easily the lightest vehicle out of the lot, and with the help of around 10 local kids, we began to heave her over the mountain. Any wrong move would have ended in disaster, and she would have certainly tumbled to her death. So I was amazed, relieved and exhilarated, when about an hour later, we finally succeeded in getting her down the other side, where she was greeted by a large round of applause, as the first, and it later transpired, the only vehicle to have crossed the landslide for some time afterwards.
Certainly the highlight of the adventure to date, this breathtaking road reached 4655 meters, before coming to an end in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
Grettle broke down 30km outside Bishkek, so I arrived at the city by tow-rope led from another motorbike. I was greeted by a somewhat startled school secretary, who nervously towed me to my new apartment, just two days prior to the start of school.
Unaware that I was about to be put through a mind-numbingly dull teacher training course before the students would actually arrive, It was'nt long before it became crystal clear that Oxford school was not the school for me! I applied for several teaching jobs in the neighboring countries and was offered, to my relief, since my funds had by this point reached rock bottom, a job teaching English to primary school children in Ulan Bator; the capital of Mongolia.
My plan was to drive there, and it had taken quite some time to sort out my Russian transit visa, and prepare for a very cold journey through the Mongolian wilderness.
Having been relieved that I had reached Bishkek in one piece, my family and friends were in a state of despair about my impending plans to travel another 4000 km over the Altai Mountains, and through the Gobi desert in October, when the coldest winter on record had recently been predicted; something that my Father never ceased to remind me of, during his defiant attempts to put me off the plan as much as possible.
And so the fact that I was mugged the day before I set off on this epic journey was an utter relief, to everyone, other than myself, since it soon became clear that the drive was off, and I was going nowhere.
My passport, driving license, registration, bank cards, and the majority of my money was stolen.
Walking back to Nomads home; a hostel I had been staying in, a chap crept up behind me, grabbed my bag, and ran for it. I attempted to catch up but failed, losing him in the forest. A startled couple that I ran into during my search, kindly called the police for me, who arrived about 20 minutes later, and we re-traced the steps the thief had taken. Shocked by their alarming and unusual methods, I stood by, as they ran into the surrounding houses and dragged out young men at gun point. ‘Is this him?’ they would ask. Having only caught a glimpse of the guy’s backside before he ran for it, it was impossible to be certain. I would wander behind them, and um and arh vaguely as I tried to decipher whether or not they fit the frame.
Eventually one chap was arrested, he had several driving licenses in his wallet and so although I was uncertain whether or not he had taken my bag, I didn’t feel too terrible about the arrest.
A young Dutch man had been walking with me to Nomads Home, and the poor guy had been roped into this whole thing the moment he had set off after the mugger and myself into the forest.
So the three police officers, my Dutch friend, the accused thief and myself, all piled into the police car to go back to the station. We reached a crossroads and narrowly avoided what would have been a fatal crash, with a car driving at a right angle to us, straight through a red light.
Furious, the police ground to a halt, spun a turn, and hurtled after the offending vehicle. We eventually caught up, the car was pulled over, the driver and the two passengers were dragged through the doors, and bundled into the back of the police car, which was now so full that I could barely breathe.
We eventually arrived at the police station, and all nine of us hobbled out to sit through three grueling hours of statements and interviews. No bag was found, and eventually my Dutch friend and I were allowed to leave.
Plans thwarted, I soon reached the conclusion that I would have to fly home, apply for a new passport, and fly directly to Ulaanbaatar. I was already rather late for the start of term, and I was beginning to realize, after my many email exchanges with the school principle in Ulaanbaatar, that he understandably, thought I had lost the plot.
So here I am, in the coldest capital in the world, separated from dear Grettle, and teaching English to little Mongolian monsters.
I am having a super time, I have an apartment all to myself, the kids are great, and I am saving up in order to take on the Karakorum Highway this June, through China, Pakistan, over the Himalayas, and into India.